Life Science: Our Food Is Increasingly Making People Sick. Why?

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As the population of the United States changes, the way we produce food is changing as well. The population of the U.S. since 2000 has increased by 45 million people. It’s trending upward of about two million more people every year. We need more food, faster than ever to support this ever-growing population. It’s a tricky thing to keep up with. While costs of production remain the same every year regardless, it means sometimes things go unchecked or aren’t checked thoroughly enough.

The recent egg recalls really sparked the conversation in this, with over 200 million eggs recalled across 9 states a few months ago for possible salmonella contamination. There were 22 cases of people getting sick over these contaminated eggs, although there were no reported deaths. These eggs were from Rose Acre Farms of Seymour’s Hyde County egg facility in North Carolina. This facility has had sanitary issues in 2017 reported by the FDA and had been warned about improving their conditions.

In a recent inspection, they were reported to have dirty facility conditions, with dead and alive rats scattered within the facility, and poor employee hygiene practices. The conveyor workspace where the eggs were placed for distribution was said to be covered in grime and food debris left uncleaned for multiple days at a time. Yet, this facility’s three million hens produce 2.3 million eggs a day which is distributed to various states under different brand names such as Country Daybreak, Crystal Farms, Coburn Farms, Sunshine Farms, Glenview, Walmart (Greater Value), and Food Lion. Since they have a large impact on our food market and supply of eggs the FDA gave them warnings but didn’t necessarily shut them down.

Not only are Walmart and Food Lion victims of salmonella contamination but higher end grocery stores like Whole Foods has had some recalls of their own. Earlier this month, a recall was made for Now Real Food’s Zesty Sprouting Mix for worry of contamination and in May and a recall occurred for Reblochon Cheese due to an E. Coli outbreak. Most remember our Romaine lettuce scare from Yuma, Arizona. The lettuce from this region was identified as being related to the outbreak of E. coli related illnesses across various states. It provided a good scare for consumers and restaurant owners alike. The good news on that front is that since the harvest season for that growing region is over and the shelf-life for romaine lettuce is about 21 days, it’s very unlikely for this to be available in stores and restaurants anymore.

E.coli is not necessarily dangerous; we have all types of bacteria in our intestines that help us digest food and E. coli is one of them. We have many strains living in there, and only some are harmful such as E. coli O157. The difference is in the various genes that these strains possess. Strains like E. coli O157 have genes that are unfavorable in that they cause diarrhea and abdominal pain. Other strains have genes that could cause kidney failure enough to become fatal. These genetics and how the various strains of E. coli interact with our bodies isn’t yet very well understood. Salmonella works in just about the same way. It’s a set of a similarly related bacterium, commonly found in our intestines, yet if live salmonella is introduced and reproduces in our digestive tracks it causes problems. Those problems can consist of diarrhea, cramps, vomiting and fever, although these symptoms last less than they would with E. coli (up to 36 hours instead of up to 7 days with E. coli)

Why is this happening and how is it spreading? Well, this goes along with the points I mentioned earlier. More people means we need faster food. Faster food means sometimes things go unchecked. Harmful bacteria have been known to arise from poor hygiene practices. The high prevalence of E. coli O157 and non-toxin-producing E. coli strains in some cattle populations, combined with the lack of on-farm E. coli controlling strategies to reduce this, provide an extreme risk for consumers and the environment. E. coli and Salmonella are spread from person-to-person as well by unwashed hands after fecal contact followed by contaminating food during preparation and coming in contact with another person. They are also spread to humans through direct contact with animals without hand washing. This then leads to a long chain of food contamination via vegetables, meats, poultry, etc. because these bacteria aren’t visible to the naked eye.

The future of food is unknown at this point. As the population continues to skyrocket, adding two million people per year, a change is due in the way that we obtain and cultivate our food. Our ecosystems are shifting and warming, creating the most opportune breeding environments for disease, especially if during mass production cleanliness is pushed aside. High-input, large-scale farming systems have caused deforestation, water shortages for use of large crop irrigation and elevated levels of greenhouse gas emissions due to, for example, the large nitrogen content of fertilizers. None of this is sustainable for our growing population.

Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University has even suggested that in the future of food there may become an even larger gap than there is today. She suggests that in the next 20 years, we will have a two-class food system: one with industrialized cheap food (with the help of new technologies) and the second class with home gardens and locally/sustainably produced food, that pay a higher cost. I’m unsure if we will reach the point where those class systems are so narrowly defined, but I do know that it is important to know where our food comes from and to prepare for the future.